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DWP is still slow to turn on home solar energy systems

Some frustrated solar energy customers wait months not weeks for L.A. to get their systems up and running
The DWP promised to speed up the process of turning on rooftop solar power systems, but waits are still long

When Gerry Hans remodeled his Hollywood Hills home, he chose green options such as landscaping with native plants, a system to recycle gray water and a $40,000 rooftop solar installation to provide electricity to the home.

The solar panels were installed in January, but they haven't pushed a single electron into the house: Hans is still waiting for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to install a meter and turn it on.

"Last I heard, it was supposed to get turned on this week," Hans said last week. As of Thursday, he still had no luck. "It doesn't seem to ever happen."

Despite promises by the DWP to speed up the process, some frustrated customers are waiting months not weeks to get their solar panels up and running. The delays and Los Angeles' onerous approval process are hampering solar installations, homeowners and industry officials say.

In February, The Times reported that it took the DWP at least 12 to 13 weeks to approve and inspect rooftop panels for homeowners — roughly five times what it was then taking in San Diego and Sacramento.

The DWP acknowledged that it needed to do better and in March announced plans to double its staff for rebate processing, hire more workers for its hot line and look for other ways to improve its approval process.

According to the DWP, 3,231 residential solar systems were installed in the year that ended July 1. That's up 32% from 2,448 a year earlier. It receives 300 to 350 rebate applications a month.

The agency also created an online "dashboard" to provide weekly progress reports on its solar program. It said the average time frame for most customers in early August was down to eight to nine weeks.

But for some customers such as Hans, the wait times have been nowhere near what the DWP says is the average processing time.

The DWP says that's because some customers misunderstand or try to circumvent its process.

The customers — and solar companies — blame the DWP's poor customer service and a process that is more tedious than those of other California utilities for the long delays.

Before it sets a meter and turns a system on, the DWP requires the customer to apply for a rebate through its Solar Incentive Program, which gives qualifying customers several thousand dollars for going solar. DWP won't turn on the meter until the customer's rebate is approved, which can take about five weeks.

Once approved for the rebate, the homeowner then has to have the solar installation inspected by the city's Building and Safety Department and DWP. That could take several more weeks.

Any hang-up with paperwork could add weeks to the wait time.

Other utilities don't tie the rebate process to turning the system on, solar companies say. They also don't inspect every installation, relying instead on building permit inspections or online processes to check the system's safety.

Many solar companies have said they would like to see the DWP adopt a similar process. The current one not only makes customers frustrated with DWP, they say, but it also leaves them "turned off" from solar.

Real estate developer Robert Shamsi built a home for his parents in Brentwood with a $66,000 solar system on the roof. L.A.'s Building and Safety inspected the system in February, but Shamsi said he was still waiting to have it switched on.

"I'm just frustrated and powerless," said Shamsi, who has started telling clients "don't even waste your time with solar" until the process improves. "I'm turned off."

Delays of more than six months are rare, said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Assn. But delays are common and not cheap.

"Every time we have to wait weeks to months, it adds costs and slows down progress," Del Chiaro said. "It has a ripple effect on our ability to field solar in L.A."

Los Angeles has huge potential for solar, she said, but it has historically lagged behind smaller cities such as San Diego. She said the DWP deserves credit for making progress but still has a ways to go.

Walker Wright, public policy director for Sunrun Inc. of San Francisco, one of the nation's largest solar companies, said despite L.A.'s improvements, "a real lack of a human touch" and poor communication is causing frustration "that's sort of boiling up right now" among customers and solar installers.

Calls to the solar program routinely go to voicemail and aren't returned for days, if at all, several contractors said. Emails go to a generic address, which leaves the sender in the dark about who is accountable for a reply.

Playing phone tag with the DWP can easily add weeks to the processing time, said Mark Smith, chief executive of Solar Forward, which installed panels for both Hans and Shamsi and often does the rebate paperwork for its customers as a service.

The utility said it is aware of the complaints and is trying to improve its process.

Michael Webster, head of power system planning and development, said the DWP is planning to produce online videos to guide customers through its application process. It has also introduced a process to simplify solar leases, he said.

"We're trying to make it a little more user friendly," Webster said, noting that about 40% of applicants have problems completing the paperwork properly.

The utility plans to automate routine communications with customers and contractors, and it's training more of its meter-setters to do solar inspections, Webster said. Work is also underway to separate the rebate process from the interconnection phase as the incentive program nears its end.

"As we mature, we're going to get better," he said. "We're not where we need to be."

chad.garland@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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